Spines and Stories


The Brattle, Boston

I picked up “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion in the Brattle Book Shop in Boston.  We were the last ones in the store, my love and me, with no plans but to walk atop the bricks until our feet ached and our hands grew chilled.  I tend to gravitate to bookstores, so many spines holding up bodies I want to know, lines of old friends with yellowed paper and curled edges, beckoning me to know them.  The smell always settles me somehow, mildewed paper and brewed coffee, the soft hum of words printed and set.

I opened it up on the plane from Hartford to Atlanta, and finished it while my son slept curled up on airplane sheets in Austin, Texas.   And after I closed the last page I thought to myself, “why just yesterday I pulled you from a shelf, and now I have woven you into my soul.”

The book was about grief. Joan journeyed through it as she lost her husband, just months before her only daughter’s treacherous stint in multiple hospitals that nearly cost her life.  It was not a lofty attribute to the dead, nor a heavy rendition of loss. It was not spirit-rich and syrupy with comforting words.  It was real.  And friends, that’s something we fail to write about well: the authenticity of pain.

Life changes fast.

Life changes in an instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

Those were her words, after her husband of forty years had a heart attack and the traveling of the mind set in.  It made me realize we can’t escape it, hiding in tight boxes as if they will hold us.  For the walls are cardboard and melt with the pummeling of so many tears. There is no preparing for death.  One thinks that a golden path can be laid so that the entry into the beyond is smooth, but that is fiction like so many pages I flip past at night.

I’ve come to realize how much I appreciate honesty, the way someone says something crazy and knows it.  Whether it be through a taco or boarded-up window or the sickening sweet of wisteria, memories burst through our boxes and start stabbing at our heart.  You can numb it or avoid it or push against it or scream at it, but despair from grief or divorce or a tangential loss comes at us at times like a black hole that sucks and does not give back.  It pulls at our inner parts no one is supposed to see.  And in the end we find comfort in strange things.  Not sappy songs about Jesus.  Not cards from Hallmark.  But the way a neighbor drops off Chinese soup every day for three weeks, since that’s the only thing one’s stomach can handle.

As I reflect upon life and death, about joy and pain, about the fragility of our stint on this earth and the tenacity of the human spirit, it makes me appreciate how people write.  The opening of the mind to share with our fellow cohorts, so we don’t feel alone.  Isn’t that the purpose of our communities, our families, and our deep-seeded friendships? To feel less alone? To have someone to hold at night and say “I’m here, with you, right now and forever?”

I continue to duck into bookstores whenever possible.  I get lost in the walls of stories, of beauty and suffering, of how one processes things.  Sometimes I sit on dirty floors and dive in, while others I just touch like friends I will someday meet.  Often I take books off shelves and run my fingers across the various covers, because someone spent many hours and months of their life pouring over this particular collection of words.  How glorious.  I like new books and old books, funny and poignant.  I read words of Saints and sinners, the ancient creed of apostles or quirky wit from mommas. Words provide an opportunity to see things I cannot see.

Life changes fast.

Life changes in an instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

This may be.  Your heart might be broken, or empty, or in my case full of new love and promise to the extent that my eyes well up at the happy.  But in all cases, words provide clarity and community, reinforcing that we are all in this together.

Don’t hold back.  Share your words with the world.





  1. That was a powerfully simple book, wasn’t it? This is lovely, Amanda. Thank you.

  2. That book is so good! I read it a couple of years before my mom died, and so many parts of it came back to me later. Her stuff from Emily Post is absolutely true. File it away for when you need it.

    So glad you love a bookstore, too! I like to buy a book when I’m on a trip, as a memento.

  3. Ann Jones says:

    Yes, thanks Amanda. We’ve moved into the new home and I’ve been sorting and sifting the boxes from the 2 homes and keeping what I need and WANT for just one home. Books! We’ve had countless arguments over the BOOKS. I may not read everyone of them, but I love them. And, I want to display them. So what if I have to buy a book shelf for the bedroom. I want to have access to my books about plants, people, and places to go. I have chunked the guilt back to the netherworld. I know I can look up the information on the net, but I still love to have the book in my hands. I read books from my ipad, but occasionally one does not have access to the net. So I’m keeping my books, but I am compromising a bit and donating a good assortment to the library. Ann

  4. This is beautiful. I love the power of words and stories. I also love reading posts I wish I had written myself!

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